I just finished one of the most remarkable books that I’ve ever “read”—Rod Dreher’s The Little Way of Ruthie Leming: A Southern Girl, a Small Town, and the Secret of a Good Life. Many good reviews have already been written since the book appeared last Spring, so I will not try to redo what’s already been done. But I do want to take a few moments to share some of my impressions from this very moving work.
The book focuses on the life and times of Ruthie Leming—Rod Dreher’s younger sister—who died in 2011 from lung cancer. But the book is more than that. It’s the story of Dreher’s sojourn away from his native south Louisiana roots and of how he found his way back. It’s about a boy who resented his hometown and who couldn’t wait to be free from it but who also grew into a man who realized that his heart never left it. This work is not for the faint of heart. It’s emotionally raw. Several times I cried while making my way through the story. Dreher leaves it all on the field in this one. And you walk with him through the grief that called him away from the life of an east coastal elite and back to “the little way of Ruthie Leming” in rural south Louisiana.
The background to Dreher’s story is his own spiritual pilgrimage from Methodism to unbelief, and then from Roman Catholicism to Eastern Orthodoxy. This aspect of Dreher’s journey is not discussed with any detail. Nevertheless, his wrestlings with home and place and belonging and community are inextricably tied to his wrestlings with God. And the way the book finishes, he gives the impression that his journey goes on. Nevertheless, his piety and earnestness are sincere and deep. He strikes me as the kind of guy that I would love to have a cup of coffee with and to chew the theological fat—even as I am certain that we would have much to disagree about!
What drew me to this book is what kept me enthralled until the end. I identify with Dreher in profound ways. He is from Louisiana, and so am I. He moved away from his home state and family many years ago, and so have I. He developed a deep and abiding lonesomeness for that family and home, and so have I. So the premise of the book resonated deeply with me before I even read the first page. And now my experience of the entire epic has gone even deeper.
Nevertheless, this book is not Wendell Berry with a south Louisiana accent. Although he draws from a communitarian impulse, Dreher is not a man who has idealized home and made a virtual utopia out of rural life and of small communities. People are people wherever you go. And moving home had challenges—real interpersonal familial conflicts that could no longer be swept under the rug. And there are some difficulties that never get resolved. But they were challenges that needed to be faced head-on and not run-away from until all the principals had passed on. And that is what makes the book so good. It’s an open look at the deep hurts that can only happen among family members who love each other deeply.
I really love The Little Way of Ruthie Leming. It’s one of my favorites—if not the favorite—of 2013. I commend it to you if you haven’t read it already. It will make an impression on you. I promise you that.
[Last Spring, Eric Metaxas interview Rod Dreher for "Socrates in the City." Watch it below.]
Postscript: It just so happens that I enjoyed the audio version of this book, which is narrated by Rod Dreher himself. I have to say that I am glad to have “read” this particular book in this way. There is interpretation in reading a book aloud, and of course Dreher’s interpretation is authoritative. Also, it was very clear at numerous points that Dreher’s emotions overtook him—even though he was reading this in a studio somewhere. This is a deeply personal memoir, so there is a special value in hearing this book through the author’s own voice.